L.A. Adopts Digital Billboard Ban: What Now?

Digital-Pico 

Amidst the drama surrounding the City Council’s vote on a permanent ordinance banning digital billboards and supergraphic signs it was easy to forget that the off-site sign ban adopted by the city seven years ago did almost exactly those same things.  So why did the city find itself with the need to rush through a last-minute ordinance, complete with the mid-session appearance of a councilman recuperating from surgery to cast the final needed vote.

The simple answer, widely reported by the media, is that the city’s current moratorium on any new off-site signs is under court challenge, and if thrown out could result in a flood of new permit applications for signs, especially those allowing conversion of conventional billboards to digital.  But why, one might ask, does it matter, if the off-site sign ban approved by the City Council in 2002 already prohibits new signs, including digital billboards?

That answer, for those not thoroughly versed in the complex history following adoption of that ban, lies in the 2006 settlement of a lawsuit concerning a related measure—a periodic billboard inventory and inspection program–adopted along with the off-site sign ban.  That settlement gave three major billboard companies the right to convert 877 of their conventional billboards to digital, in spite of the fact that the 2002 ordinance not only banned new billboards, but prohibited any modifications to existing billboards.   In 2007, the city began issuing permits for these digital conversions, and 102 had been issued by late last year when the City Council imposed a 6-month moratorium on permits for any kind of off-site advertising signs.

Another feature of the 2002 ban on new billboards were provisions—some might reasonably call them loopholes—allowing exceptions to the ban if approved pursuant to special sign districts, to specific plan areas in the zoning code, and to development agreements (commonly part of community redevelopment projects).  In 2007, an obscure Pennsylvania sign company called World Wide Rush sued the city in federal court, asking that the entire off-site sign ban be declared unconstitutional on the grounds that those three exceptions allowed the city to grant certain companies the right to put up signs, while denying that right to others.  And in August of 2008, the judge in the case agreed, enjoining the city from enforcing the ban on that company’s signs, and subsequently, on other companies that paraded into court to make the same argument.

The city has appealed that ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, but no hearings have been scheduled or decisions handed down. 

The billboard moratorium adopted last December by the City Council was intended to give the city time to rewrite its sign ordinance so that it could pass constitutional muster and withstand legal challenge.  In March of this year, after four public hearings, the City Planning Commission approved a revised ordinance that maintained the off-site sign ban but did away with the exceptions for specific plan areas and development agreements.  The new ordinance would have still allowed digital, supergraphic, and otherwise prohibited sign types in sign districts, but the criteria and procedures for establishing these districts were made much more stringent. 

Faced with this ordinance, which also contained stricter regulations on on-site, or business, signage, the City Council seemed to develop a kind of paralysis.  It finally decided that new City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, who took office July 1, should be given the opportunity to weigh in on the ordinance, even though the lengthy process of drafting it included consultation with one of the country’s leading experts on sign law and related constitutional issues.   However, the moratorium on new signs was set to expire before Trutanich was sworn in, so the City Council had to hastily approve a brand new 3-month moratorium that would run until late September. 

A sign company operating under the name—we’re not kidding—“Community Redevelopment Association dba Liberty Media” sued last month to block the moratorium, and hence the rush to put a permanent ban in place before Clear Channel and others started putting up more of the digital billboards that have been sticks poked into eyes of neighborhoods from Venice to Hollywood. 

So, to paraphrase one of the Dude’s quotes in “The Big Lebowski” as a question, “Is that fuckin’ ingenious? If I understand it correctly is that a Swiss fuckin’ watch?”  Well, hardly.  The new ordinance does say that the city won’t approve any new signs under the three current exceptions to the off-site ban until the 9th Circuit rules in the World Wide Rush case, but when that will be is anyone’s guess, and of course a ruling in the city’s favor can still be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, as has been done in another famous—or infamous—court case, Metrolights v. City of Los Angeles.  In simple language, it could drag on.  And on.

A worse-case scenario is a ruling in favor of World Wide Rush, affirming the judge’s view that the city’s sign code has fatal constitutional flaws.  The actions of other sign companies that appeared to smell blood in the water after that judge’s decision may look like tea and crumpets in contrast to what could ensue if the 9th Circuit wads up the city’s sign ban and tosses it into the trash and shuts the lid.

It’s obvious—painfully obvious to anyone who chooses to give the matter serious thought—that the City Council cannot sit on its hands and hope for a favorable ruling.  It must take up the new sign ordinance passed by the City Planning Commission more than four months ago and have new, more stringent, more constitutionally sound regulations in place.  This is only part of the answer to the question “How Can L.A. Control Outdoor Advertising?” but it is a key part, and the council must throw off its own history of dithering and dawdling on these matters and act now.

Dennis Hathaway

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